According to last week’s Question of the Week, about two thirds of respondents ride indoors.
36% use a plain old-fashioned trainer
15% use a new smart trainer
9% take spinning classes
6% ride rollers
35% only outside or not at all
To get the maximum value out of a trainer ride, it should have a warm-up, a main set with specific purpose, and a cool-down. It’s not just turning the cranks for a certain amount of time. These 13 workouts include main sets to work on endurance, climbing, power, strength, VO2max and cadence.
Even if you’re pressed for time, include the warm-up and cool-down. They don’t have to be long—five minutes of each is sufficient for most rides. You can do all 13 of these workouts on a regular or smart trainer. Most can also be done on rollers or even outdoors.
Group spinning classes can also be fun and motivating. During a class, remember that you are riding primarily to build endurance and adjust the workouts accordingly. Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t do on a road ride, e.g., don’t use upper body weights.
#1 Workout to Establish your Training Zones – 40+ minutes
The workouts #2 – 4 are defined in terms of training zones. Here’s how to do a baseline time trial to establish your training zones:
The Workout: Set up your trainer with a big fan or an open window so that the heat doesn’t cause your heart rate to go up.
Warm-up for at least 15 minutes. During the warm-up you should be breathing deeply but still able to carry on a conversation. If you’re alone talk out loud to yourself.
Time trial for exactly 20 minutes as hard as you can. Don’t go out too fast — try to hold the same speed for the entire TT.
Cool down for at least 5 minutes.
Your average heart rate for 20 minutes is 105% of your lactate threshold (LT). Multiply your average HR by 0.95 to estimate your LT. Your average power for 20 minutes is 105% of your functional threshold power (FTP). Multiply your average power by 0.95 to estimate your FTP. ou can download a spreadsheet to calculate your training zones by RPE, heart rate and power from my website.
Note which gear you used for the TT. You can repeat the test using the same gear. Every 4 to 6 weeks to see if you improved. If you can go faster and farther for the 20 minutes then you’ve improved! If your average heart rate has gone up then your LT is higher and you should recalculate your training zones. If your average power has gone up then your FTP is higher so recalculate your training zones. If you go faster but your average HR or power haven’t changed you’ve become more efficient.
#2 Fartlek – 30+ minutes
Most of the following workouts have different kinds of defined intervals. What if you don’t like intervals and structure? Fartlek, which means “speed play” in Swedish, is simply periods of hard riding intermixed with periods of easier riding. Fartlek is a great way to make a workout more challenging without looking at your computer.
The Workout: After warming up mix up harder and easier riding any way you feel like it. Hard and easy don’t have to be the same all the time. Cool down.
#3 Endurance Intervals – 30+ minutes
The Workout: After warming up, ride 5- to 10-minute tempo intervals at the level of effort you’d ride into a headwind. You can still talk but not whistle. Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) = 3-4 on a 10 point scale, heart rate (HR) = 84-94% of lactate threshold (LT), power = 76–90% of Functional Threshold Power (FTP). Between each interval, recover for about 50% of length of the interval (2.5 to 5 minutes) at a conversational pace — imagine you’ve turned around and have a tailwind. Each week try to increase the duration of the tempo intervals and/or decrease the amount of recovery. Cool down.
#4 Hill Climbing Intervals – 30+ minutes (tricky on rollers)
Elevate your front wheel with a block of wood. Your front wheel on a piece of wood 3/4″ (2 cm) thick equals about a 2% grade, a piece 1-1/2” (4 cm) thick equals about a 4% grade, etc.
The Workout: The workout is similar to endurance intervals except you use one gear harder. After warming up, ride three to six climbing intervals at the level of effort you’d climb a long hill. The effort is similar to the tempo intervals in the Endurance workout. You’re breathing deeply and your legs are definitely working, but you’re not feeling the burn. RPE = 3-4, 84-94% of LT, 76 – 90% of FTP. Between each interval, recover for about the same duration as the interval by riding at an easy pace — imagine you’re spinning down a gentle decline. Each week increase the number and/or length of the “hills” or elevate the front wheel more. Cool down.
#5 Sweet Spot – 30+ minutes
Training in the sweet spot is the optimal way to build sustained power (but not peak power.) You’re riding harder than at a conversational pace but aren’t starting to breathe very rapidly. You should still be able to say a word or two but not more. The sweet spot is RPE = 4-5, 93-97% of LT, 88–94% of FTP.
The Workout: After warming up:
Repeat 3 to 6 times [4 minutes in the sweet spot and 2 minutes easy]. The easy recovery part is at a conversational or slower pace, <83% of LT or <75% of FTP.
If you can do 6 reps, then progress to longer intervals in the sweet spot:
Repeat 3 to 6 times [5 minutes in the sweet spot and 2.5 minutes easy]. The easy recovery interval is always 1/2 the sweet spot interval.
Over several workouts build until you can do all 6 repeats, and then progress to:
Repeat 3 to 6 times [6 minutes in the sweet spot and 3 minutes easy].
As you progress, you can add a minute every time you can do 6 reps, with rest always half the total time in the sweet spot.
#6 Improvise the Sweet Spot – 30+ minutes
The Workout: While watching TV, push your intensity up to the Sweet Spot during all the commercials and pedal at a conversational intensity during the show.
In December Peter Sagan is doing primarily endurance and hill climbing intervals and some sweet spot intervals.
#7 Power Pyramid – About 45 minutes
The Workout: Set a moderate resistance and skip the warm-up. Pedal for 1 minute in your lowest (easiest) gear, then shift up one gear and pedal for another minute. Keep shifting up one gear every minute until you get to your hardest gear. Pedal in it for a minute and then work your way back down one gear every minute. Try to keep the same cadence throughout. Skip the cool-down. To shorten the workout every minute shift up two gears until you are in your highest gear and then shift down two gears every minute. Or shift up one gear every minute and then down two gears every minute.
#8 Sprints for Everyone – 30+ minutes
The purpose is to increase your power by improving the way your nervous system controls your muscles. In other words, you don’t need bigger or stronger muscles, you just need to use the ones you have more effectively! A muscle is composed of motor units. A motor unit is a muscle fiber and the nerve that controls it. When you pedal, your motor units don’t naturally all fire at exactly the same time, so you’re wasting power. When you sprint, you’re demanding peak power and your body learns to coordinate the firing of all of the motor units. It’s like dialing in the timing on your car engine. When you sprint you are demanding maximum power. Over time through repeated sprints your body learns to better coordinate the firing your motor units to give you more power.
The Workout: Skip the warm-up and cool-down. When you’re riding throw several short (30 to 60 second) all-out sprints with full recovery (at least 5 minutes) between each sprint. Don’t think about heart rate or power. Just put it in a big gear, e.g., 53×15 and go hard.
#9 Random Sprints – 15+ minutes.
The Workout: Warm up watching a football game. Then sprint every time the ball is in play and soft pedal in between. Cool-down.
#10 VO2 Max 25+ minutes
The purpose is to increase your VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen that your working muscles can use. You can increase your VO2 max through long endurance rides — hard to do in the winter — or through very short intense efforts. This is similar to sprinting; however, you don’t get full recovery between your max efforts.
The Workout: Warm up and then repeat 3 to 5 times:
20 seconds flat out
40 seconds very easy
4:00 minutes tempo RPE = 3-4, 84-94% of LT, 76 – 90% of FTP.
When you can do five repeats decrease the tempo duration:
Repeat 3 to 5 times: [20 seconds flat out, 40 seconds very easy and then just 3:30 minutes tempo pace.]
Or you can increase the duration of the max effort:
Repeat 3 to 5 times: [30 seconds flat out, 30 seconds very easy and then four minutes tempo.]
#11 Leg Strength – 30+ minutes (very difficult on rollers)
Standing builds strong quads.
The Workout: Warm up and then ride at a conversational pace. Every five minutes or so, shift 1 or 2 gears harder and ride standing for as long as you can. Then sit back down and shift back down 1 or 2 gears. Count the number of rotations of the cranks you can do. Every second or third time that you do the workout try to stand for one more revolution.
#12 One Legged Pedaling – 20+ minutes (very difficult on rollers and dangerous outdoors)
This strengthens other muscles than your quads, muscles that provide more power. The Workout: Set a moderate resistance and warm up. Unclip and rest your left foot on a box, stool, etc. and start with your right leg:
0:30 – 60 (seconds) right leg
0:30 – 60 both legs (don’t bother to clip in your left foot; just pedal easy to recover)
0:30 – 60 right leg
0:30 – 60 both
0:30 – 60 right leg
0:30 – 60 both
After your right-leg set, switch to your left and repeat the sequence. Each week try to increase each one-leg effort by five seconds.
Imagining the following will help you to recruit all of your muscles:
Top of the stroke – imagine that you are pushing your knee toward the handlebar.
Down stroke — imagine that you are pushing down toward the floor.
Bottom of the stroke — imagine that you are scraping your toe along the floor.
Back of the stroke — imagine that you are lifting a weight around your ankle.
If you can easily do three 30-second repeats, then make the repeats longer with the same amounts of time pedaling with one leg and with both legs, e.g., three repeats of 45 seconds one-leg / 45 seconds two-leg. Every second or third time that you do the workout try to increase by five seconds the duration of all three repeats of both the one-leg and two-leg intervals.
#13 Spin-ups to Increase Your Cadence – 20+ minutes
The Workout: Use a moderate resistance and skip the warm-up and ride conversationally. Every five minutes or so increase the cadence as follows. Only go as high as you can while pedaling smoothly:
1 min @ 80 RPM
1 min @ 90 RPM
1 min @ 100 RPM
1 min @ 110 RPM
1 min @ 120 RPM
1 min @ 130 RPM
1 min @ 120 RPM
1 min @ 110 RPM
Continue back down to 80 RPM. After each repetition through the sequence, ride conversationally for about five minutes. Skip the cool-down
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Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.